Linus Pauling, Morton Sobell and the Rosenbergs

A New York Times article published this morning and subsequently spread across the wire services, reveals compelling new information concerning the activities of accused Soviet spies Morton Sobell, Julius Rosenberg and Ethel Rosenberg.  Here are the lede grafs from the Times piece:

In 1951, Morton Sobell was tried and convicted with Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on espionage charges. He served more than 18 years in Alcatraz and other federal prisons, traveled to Cuba and Vietnam after his release in 1969 and became an advocate for progressive causes.

Through it all, he maintained his innocence.

But on Thursday, Mr. Sobell, 91, dramatically reversed himself, shedding new light on a case that still fans smoldering political passions. In an interview, he admitted for the first time that he had been a Soviet spy.

And he implicated his fellow defendant Julius Rosenberg, in a conspiracy that delivered to the Soviets classified military and industrial information and what the American government described as the secret to the atomic bomb.

In the interview with The New York Times, Mr. Sobell, who lives in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx, was asked whether, as an electrical engineer, he turned over military secrets to the Soviets during World War II when they were considered allies of the United States and were bearing the brunt of Nazi brutality. Was he, in fact, a spy?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, call it that,” he replied. “I never thought of it as that in those terms.”

Mr. Sobell also concurred in what has become a consensus among historians: that Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed with her husband, was aware of Julius’s espionage, but did not actively participate. “She knew what he was doing,” he said, “but what was she guilty of? Of being Julius’s wife.”

Linus and Ava Helen Pauling were keenly interested in the Rosenberg and Sobell cases, as evidenced by the two related boxes of materials held in the Pauling Biographical section, subseries two. (Boxes 2.044 and 2.045) Though not intensively involved in either the Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case or Committee to Secure Justice for Morton Sobell, Linus Pauling did lend his name as a “letterhead sponsor” to both groups.

Pauling also spoke out in support of Sobell’s and the Rosenbergs’ right to due process — a position for which he was rather thoroughly castigated during his infamous “Meet the Press” appearance of May 11, 1958.

The Pauling Papers contain at least two short items written by Linus Pauling which articulate his position toward the Rosenberg and Sobell cases.

The handwritten note included below was scrawled on the second page of a letter that had been sent to Pauling by Sobell’s wife, Helen, in September 1953.  Pauling’s note was officially submitted to a national Sobell conference held on October 10, 1953, at which Harold Urey, among many others, spoke.

Handwritten statement by Linus Pauling, September 1953

Handwritten statement by Linus Pauling, September 1953

The second document, “Statement by Prof. Linus Pauling,” (catalogue i.d. 1953a.2) was written in January 1953 in support of a coordinated effort to secure clemency for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been issued a death sentence nearly two years prior.  (That’s Ava Helen Pauling‘s handwriting on the bottom)

As it turned out, the efforts of Pauling and his like-minded colleagues proved unsuccessful —  on June 19, 1953, the Rosenbergs were executed, having been found guilty of conspiracy to commit espionage.

One Response

  1. […] Pauling was his appeal to the White House for the commutation of the death sentences handed down to Julius and Ethel Rosenburg. Pauling was keenly interested in the Rosenberg case and read widely of the details underlying […]

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